Test: Nokon brake and shifter housing

nokon%2002.jpgNokon segmented aluminium cable housing has been on the market for a number of years; I’ve used it myself for at least 4 yrs. It’s available in a number of anodized colors, weighs less and costs several times what you’d pay for perfectly good lined cable housing from Shimano or Jagwire. Why would you want it?

Nokon’s housing consists of short segments of aluminium with alternating convex/concave ends, allowing the housing to articulate, plus a fibreglass-reinforced Teflon liner that runs the length of the cable, sealing the system between split stops. While it does weigh less than standard housing, it’s time-consuming to install, adding or subtracting segments like beads on a string to get the perfect lengths.

However, the stuff works well, at least for brakes. The Nokon segments have virtually no compression once the pads hit the rim (or rotor), so more hand power is translated to stopping force. Many people talk about cables stretching to make the brakes feel mushy, but it’s as much or more housing compression than cable stretch.

Nokon also works well for really tight bends in housing. I originally got Nokon for myself because my mtb’s rear V-brake was so close to the seatpost that the housing run was all effed up and the inflexible standard housing prevented reasonable centering of the brake arms. The Nokon system for V-brakes replaced the “noodle” with extra-short segments that did not overpower the spring adjustment on the brake arms; as a bonus, the system is sealed so water and grit did not foul the rear section of housing anymore.

On my road bikes, I have a really tight run from the handlebar to the front brake caliper because my bikes are small and I run my bars somewhat low. Nokon’s extra “flexy”-ness with low friction really helps. I bought one set of Nokon roadbike brake housing and split it on the front brakes of two different bikes. It works great.

I also use it on my Sycip travel bike. Since I have to stuff the bike in an S&S case, I like the Nokon because it won’t kink no matter how roughly I pack the bike.

Where Nokon doesn’t work so well is shifters. Standard shifter housing is generally coaxially reinforced, so Nokon doesn’t have much that it can improve upon (standard brake housing has the more compressible spiral-wound reinforcement, probably so it will not collapse from high cable tension like coaxial can). Nokon always has a little bit of slack in the system before you add tension, then it goes firm. This plays havoc with tuning out a shifter/derailleur system, especially if the indexing is for short cable travel. In other words, it affects 10sp shifters more than 9sp because the 10sp shifters pull less cable per shift. Also, SRAM shifters are less affected than Shimano since SRAM pulls more cable per shift.

I rode my Sycip across Japan last summer with the Nokon system that allows you to route the shifter cable of an Shimano STI under the bar tape, like Erik Zabel famously did when his team switched from Campag to Shimano in 2004. I did this not for aesthetics; rather I had a handlebar bag sitting right in the natural path of the shifter cable. Shifting would have been unacceptable for race conditions, but I learned to live with it. On a touring bike, you don’t need hair-trigger shifting performance. But as soon as I got home and removed the bag, I re-rigged my shifters. So did Zabel.

Verdict: Nokon looks cool, is somewhat lighter, works great for tortured housing runs, makes brakes feel better, subpar for shifters.

What? Segmented metal housing is too plebeian for you? Hold tight, Nokon has segmented carbon housing available now too…it will melt your credit card.